Sunday, 9 August 2009

The trail of memory: stewed plums

The end of summer is often the time when, in a desperate attempt to capture the fleeting sun, one spends even longer outdoors, breathing in the increasingly fresh air of still green leaves and fruit in prime. Bottling the essence of the escaping warmth and approaching days of trumpeting water on a roof is a process of prolonging the pleasure of the summer season. It is also about building of future memories, moments of looking back and enjoying the nostalgia. Be it oversized strawberries, tiger bodies of enormous courgettes or your own memory of the days that will never come again - August is the time of melancholy; that mellow and slow feeling of time trickling away, and you being on the verge of both laughter and tear. The making of the future memories therefore becomes remembrance of the things repast…

Most of my summers when I was little were spent in Crimea, in the South of Ukraine, on the Black sea, in Feodosiya, the town popular with hippies and Soviet burokrachiki. My grandfather Dmitry Vladimirovich, having retired from the tiresome role of a KGB major, had built a wooden house there; and my brightly ginger grandmother Polina had grown a beautiful and wild garden around the house, full of overgrown flowers, peach and cherry trees, chickens and lots of spindly spiders hanging between trees and forgotten corners. There was a little wooden hut amongst the trees, stuffy with lots of dump and communist magazines, poetry volumes and ship-building manuals (my dad was a ship engineer). There were a couple of springy single beds there and a drawer which always held a bottle of portwein or a ‘good Georgian cognac’ – my father liked a tumble or two (or three) in the evening, before going off to see his friends - captains of small tourist boats; to me commanders of huge ships.

My grandfather had long been gone by the time I remember my dad taking me to Feodosiya for my 3-month summer holidays, although my grandma Polina – a stern women with lots of energy – was still around, looking after the house, making me scared with her steely manner, but also making lots of wonderful jams in her little, cool kitchen. She would lay out mountains of fruits on a table outside her house and use huge, enamel basins (normally used for washing up) and a small stove to preserve the summer: the wonderful fruity mess would slowly change its colour from dark red, to bubble-gum pink to pale innocent pink. The intoxicating aroma of sugar and fruit is still imprinted in my mind (and my belly). To this day I think she must have been quite a lonely woman, with a quietly tragic life of a wife of a KGB employee, a man who held tough principles on child-rearing and liked younger women. I would like to think that Polina’s jam making was a way to show love and care to the world, to preserve the heavy and impossibly beautiful fruits of her labour in the garden, and to give her a moment of eye-squeezing happiness in the middle of very severe Crimean winters: I can imagine her sitting a table, covered with a bright plastic cover, the room only lit by a small table lamp, slurping dark, hot tea with little spoonfuls of summer-laden sweet fruits preserved in their youth and virginity. Dad and I would often carry the heavy jars of crimson and yellow all the way back to cool and flat Estonia, store them in our little kladovka, next to my mum’s creations, to be open and enjoyed for ‘special occasions’ (the first one almost always being my birthday just a couple of months later) and cold, white nights, when only sweet and canned would do.

I remembered my grandma Polina’s jam-making sessions today, when impromptu I decided to stew a few forgotten plums in the fridge. They were tiny, very tart and impossible to stone, but once put together with a bit of sugar and water, the magic begun. The fruits had quickly lost their shape, became slushy, bubbled up into a pretty fury of white and pink syrup and just a few minutes later re-appeared as a beautifully dark and nourishing soup - quite far in taste or texture from Polina’s perfectly formed jams, but nevertheless immensely smoothing, relaxing in its sugarness and languid consistency – a beautiful and melancholic link between the things long past and the things soon to come.

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